• Presbyterian Reformed Church

Dr. William Young: A Christian Philosophy Teacher

The following piece was written many years ago by Dr. William Young. A version of this article was originally published in The Christian Observer circa 2001.  It is posted here in its pre-edited form.


When I began teaching philosophy at Butler University in 1947 as Clark’s junior colleague I was much involved in the ‘Reformed’ philosophy of Dooyeweerd to which I had been introduced by Van Til and which had been the subject of my Th.D. thesis in 1944.  I should add here, I had already disassociated myself from Van Til’s criticism of Clark before I was invited to teach at Butler!  There was also an Hegelian strain in my confused philosophical teaching, nurtured by Van Til’s Apologetics and especially by Richard Kroner’s brilliant lectures on German Idealism from Kant to Hegel.  This tendency was expressed in the course I introduced with Clark’s permission on Modern Dialectical Philosophy.  My association with Clark both contributed to clearing away some of my mental cobwebs and educated me in the method of teaching the history of philosophy with recognition of what is to be ascribed to the gift of the Holy Spirit and rejection of what is contrary to the Word both in Logic and the Bible.

In 1951 I went to Holland on sabbatical leave from Butler, to work directly with Dooyeweerd in connection with the translation of a portion of Volume I of his major philosophic work.  There I became increasingly disillusioned with the Neo-Calvinism of the Free University in general and particularly with the developments in Dooyeweerd’s philosophy, and found myself much more at home with the older Calvinism in other Dutch circles, although I did publish a revised version of the Th.D. thesis at the time.  In the spring of 1952 after a dreary winter I left Amsterdam for a month in Copenhagen where I met several Kierkegaard scholars, among whom the most memorable was Niels Thulstrup who conducted me about sites relating to Soren Kierkegaard including the house opposite the Lutheran cathedral, in which Soren Kierkegarrd wrote his scathing attack against Christendom in his last years. Thulstrup remarked that the statues of Christ and the apostles, the originals by the great Danish sculptor Thorvaldsen being in the church, were better suited for a pagan temple than for a Christian Church!

In those days, somewhat infatuated with Existentialism, which was popular with students and some professors in Holland, I looked up several representatives of that movement; in Paris, Gabriel Marcel, the Catholic Existentialist; in Basel, Karl Jaspers with whom I had a charming visit; in Freiburg in Germany, Martin Heidegger whose crowded lectures I attended.  Both Marcel and Heidegger disliked the label ‘Existentialist’, presumably out of fear of being classified with Sartre.  And, though I may not have realized it at the time, Soren Kierkegaard ought not to be counted as such, whatever may have been his influence upon them by his pseudonymous works.

After leaving Butler in 1954, I was matriculated at Oxford as a graduate student.  Although I wrote a thesis on the origins of Hegel’s dialectic in his early theological writings, my chief discovery at Oxford was the pervasiveness of nonsense in philosophy and other subjects.  Ordinary language philosophy was dominant and Hegel was treated, when mentioned at all, as the paradigm of nonsense.  My supervisor, Michael Foster, however, had written a thesis on Hegel at Jena under Kroner, and was one of the few dons who sought to do philosophy as a Christian.  If I was admitted to Merton College with Hegel research in mind, I was rewarded by discovering Wittgenstein, and particularly his Tractatus with its emphasis on logic and linguistic method.

This brings me to the years in the Philosophy department of the University of Rhode Island, 1960-1988.  The department in those days had a conservative Christian character, an island in the midst of a restless secular sea.  Through the recommendation of David H. Freeman with whom I had collaborated in the Dooyeweerd translation I was appointed notwithstanding the warranted suspicions of the liberal university administration.  My theological background was suited for teaching the courses in Biblical Thought and the History of Christian Thought as well as the Philosophy of Religion.  I also had sections of the basic courses in Logic and Ethics.  Later, when the Master’s program was in effect, the teaching load included Symbolic Logic, Philosophical Logic, Philosophy of Language, Studies in Patristic and Medieval Philosophy and studies in modern philosophy from Hegel to the present.  I also introduced courses in Augustine’s Confessions and classical religious thinkers, in the last I was free to teach Augustine, Edwards or Kierkegaard or others I might choose.

I cannot say that I taught any philosophical system as the truth, and now I am inclined to think that philosophy should rather be a method, chiefly logic applicable to all branches of knowledge.  My only system is Theology as I learned it as a teenager from Calvin’s Institutes and as John Murray taught it at the Old Westminster.  But if I have to be branded with a label, it could be ‘Neo-Augustinian’.

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